On a Sunday afternoon in the middle of September, a jet carrying Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney touched down at Kansas City International Airport. Romney exited to greet a few people on the tarmac while the plane refueled for a flight westward and its passengers filled up on catered barbecue.
The unscheduled, unpublicized stop marked the only time Romney stepped foot in Missouri since winning his party’s nomination. President Barack Obama, a Democrat, never came to Missouri at all to campaign.
The 2012 presidential race has been unlike anything Missouri voters have seen in quite some time. Or perhaps “not seen” is a better description. There have been no rallies, debates or public events featuring Obama or Romney. And neither candidate has run any ads specifically targeting Missouri.
That’s a sharp contrast with the 2008 election and the intense presidential campaigns that Missourians have come to expect over the past several decades.
In short: “They’re ignoring the state,” said George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University.
The reason: Romney is expected to win Missouri, so neither candidate figures it’s worth his precious time and money to battle for the state’s 10 electoral votes.
“Campaigns have become very efficient at allocating resources — they think a lot about where battleground states are,” said John Petrocik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Missouri in Columbia.
The fact that Missouri is not a presidential battleground this year has forced the state Democratic and Republican parties to take on a greater role in recruiting volunteers, identifying likely voters and getting them to turn out on Election Day. Both parties vow they still will have strong efforts — even without the aid of their presidential contenders.
A few statistics illustrate the vast differences between the last presidential campaign and the current one. In October 2008, Obama’s presidential campaign had opened 44 field offices in Missouri and created 400 “neighborhood teams,” each responsible for coordinating efforts in eight to 12 precincts that could cover anywhere from a few city blocks to an entire county. Each of Obama’s neighborhood teams in Missouri had a volunteer director for local canvassing, phone banks, data management and volunteer recruitment.
This year, Obama’s website lists two offices in Missouri — one in St. Louis, the other in Kansas City.
When it became clear that Obama would not invest heavily in Missouri, Sen. Claire McCaskill took the lead in organizing the state party’s efforts, said Karla Thieman, the coordinated campaign director for the Missouri Democratic Party. The party has opened 32 offices around Missouri, and its volunteers have knocked on more than 900,000 doors and made over 4 million phone calls, Thieman said. Not everyone answers, of course, but those efforts have translated into actual contact with nearly a million potential voters, she said.
The state party is “running a very aggressive persuasion program of voter-to-voter contact,” Thieman said.
She added: “There have been some folks who have said there is a lack of excitement because the presidential (candidate) is not here, but we’re definitely not seeing and hearing and feeling that on the ground.”
In October 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain had 16 full-time offices in Missouri. This year, the state Republican Party has eight offices run in conjunction with the national party and an additional 52 county GOP offices, many of which are open on a part-time basis, said state GOP executive director Lloyd Smith. He said the GOP expects to make close to the same number of phone calls — around 1.1 million — that were made in 2008.
Smith, who has more than three decades of experience in Missouri politics, said he can’t recall another presidential election in which Missouri has not been a targeted battleground. In years past, campaign events featuring presidential candidates have drawn crowds of people, whose names, addresses and phone numbers were collected by party leaders.
“Because we’re not having those large rallies with the 10,000 people or 20,000 people, we’ve had to work harder to get volunteers,” Smith said.
Four years ago, Obama lost Missouri to McCain by 3,903 votes out of more than 2.9 million cast — the slimmest margin in any state — despite the fact that Obama carried 53 percent of the nation’s popular vote and two-thirds of the electoral vote. It marked just the second time in more than a century that Missouri voters had not sided with the winning presidential candidate. The 2008 presidential election has been cited by political experts as an indication that Missouri now favors Republicans in national elections.
“We’ve become, in some way, kind of a victim of our own success,” said Smith, the Republican director. “I don’t want to say we’re being taken for granted, but I think our production in the last two election cycles has proven we can carry our weight.”
Although not campaigning in Missouri for the general election, the presidential tickets have drawn money from the state.
The absence of in-state campaigning by presidential contenders can also affect down-ballot candidates by denying them the free public exposure that comes from sharing a stage with a bigger name and, potentially, by diminishing the coattail effect among voters.
“As a general proposition, the better the top of the ticket does, the better that party’s vote is as you go down the ballot,” said Petrocik, the political scientist.
Will the absence of an aggressive presidential campaign in Missouri make it harder for other candidates to do well?
“We’re going to find out,” Blunt said. “We’ve had so little experience with that.”